When WYSO’s Kyle Knox lost the clarinet, he discovered a calling

November 12, 2018

John DeMain, the longtime music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, remembers the first time he heard Kyle Knox conduct. It was at the Capitol Lakes retirement center Downtown, where the novice conductor had rounded up a group of musicians to play a chamber ensemble version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

It was not your conventional sort of concert.

“And it was magical,” DeMain said.

“It was beautifully done, beautifully played, beautifully shaped. And I thought his technique was clear and clean and musical.

“So I thought, hmm, this person has talent.”

That night was one of the many remarkable moments in Knox’s journey to becoming a conductor — a profession the 36-year-old musician never thought he’d find himself in.

By 23, Knox had become one of the best clarinet players in the country, winning a coveted spot as assistant principal clarinetist in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Then, four years later, a musician’s nightmare: He was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological condition that affected two fingers on his right hand when he played.

Knox put his clarinet in the closet.

And he turned the page.

Knox took a remarkable turn when, through hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit, he transformed himself into a conductor.

That determination paid off this summer, when Knox beat out 71 applicants from five countries to win the spot of music director for one of the state’s premier youth arts groups, the Madison-based Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, known as WYSO.

At the same time, DeMain tapped him to be the MSO’s new associate conductor. And this fall, Knox was asked to fill in for the associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony — leading the top-tier musicians he used to play with.

“I think what he did was risky — to try to build a conducting career in Madison, Wisconsin,” said DeMain, who has become one of Knox’s key mentors and inspirations.

“It’s a gamble, but he and his wife both love the city. We’re lucky to have someone of his caliber in our midst.”

Swept away by music

Many conductors begin preparing for the role at an early age. Knox, who will conduct WYSO’s Youth Orchestra in a public performance Friday night, did not.

Knox grew up in a large, extended family in Raritan, New Jersey. When it was time to pick an instrument to play in the middle school band, he settled on his uncle’s old plastic clarinet, which had turned into a decorative family heirloom.

Things got off to a rough start. Knox was put in one of the last chairs in the clarinet section.

“I got a C-minus from my band teacher, who even called my mom” to complain that he was not practicing, Knox said.

Then something happened: Knox asked his mom if he could quit the clarinet, then decided on his own that he would not. He switched to bass clarinet “and took it home over the summer, and got good at it. I practiced all the time. I came back the next year, and the band director was totally amazed.”

A former Little League MVP (and still a diehard Yankees fan), Knox can recall specific moments in his youth when classical music swept him away: a cassette tape of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in the car on a family road trip; a TV documentary about Leonard Bernstein; the CD box set of great classical pieces he got for Christmas from his parents, who were not musical, but were supportive.

“I was just innately interested in classical music. I liked it,” he said.

“It branched out into this whole thing, this infinite world of incredible repertoire that is like a special secret. My friends were into punk rock and we’d go to shows and I’d think, ‘I really just want to be listening to classical music right now.’”

In ninth grade, Knox started private lessons. In 10th grade, he joined the New Jersey youth orchestra — and met “this totally amazing kid who was a year younger than me, but incredible. I’d never heard anyone play like that. So I got super-competitive with him.”

Knox figured out who the boy’s teacher was, and went to study with him. Then he studied with his teacher’s teacher, the famed Yehuda Gilad.

At the time he didn’t realize how amazing the confluence of events was. Now, he understands how critical the teen years can be for musicians — like the students in the WYSO organization he now leads.

“Looking back, I see how remarkable it is to expose people that age to something really spectacular,” he said.

Life-changing diagnosis

Knox landed a spot at The Juilliard School — and it was there, and in an elite youth orchestra, that he got to know his future wife, violinist and MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz.

He then won his remarkable full-time job in the Milwaukee Symphony, taught at UW-Milwaukee and played with Santa Fe Opera in the summer.

“I was just going about my life,” he said. “I was making pretty good money and had this really full schedule. I just started to notice my hands were starting to get weird.”

The focal dystonia diagnosis came in 2009. Knox had heard the term before.

“It’s like one of these horror stories — it is the worst thing that can happen to you as a musician,” he said.

Though little understood, focal dystonia has afflicted numerous musicians, perhaps most notably the pianist Leon Fleisher. Knox compares it to being a driver who is steering his car perfectly straight down a road, but has a constant sense that he is veering sideways.

“So you start correcting. You start compensating. And that compensation is actually what focal dystonia is: When something completely familiar starts to feel unfamiliar in a new way that you can’t account for,” he said.

For Knox, “it only happens when I play the clarinet, and it only affects two fingers in my right hand.” In 2010, he went on medical leave from his Milwaukee job.

Knox and his wife traveled to Seville, Spain, to consult with a specialist. The trip was beautiful, but tinged with sadness because of the diagnosis that prompted it, Greenholtz said.

“It took a long time to grieve properly – to mourn the loss of something that was so central to both our lives,” she said.

“It needed to be replaced by something,” Knox said.

Huge paradox

Knox threw himself into learning a new art.

“Like the way I obsessed about clarinet, I dove right into conducting,” he said.

“I was 28 or 29 at the time, and I sensed that I might be young enough — even though I’d never conducted before — I might be young enough to switch gears here.”

A conductor can’t learn without an orchestra, so Knox created one. He called in his students and musician friends.

“I called in every favor I could, getting 45 people in a room, writing 300 emails, moving the timpani, getting all the music, doing all the library work, everything, to get a bunch of people to do a reading with me,” he said, telling his friends, “‘Let’s do a Mozart symphony — I don’t know how to do it, but you’re going to play and it’s going to be fine.’”

“I’m serious, that’s how it was — super-awkward, super-uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s a huge paradox: When you start conducting, you’re in charge, but you’re also the worst person at what you’re doing on stage.”

Yet Knox kept at it. After his wife became concertmaster of the MSO and also the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, the couple moved from Milwaukee to Madison, and bought a three-flat on a shady street on the Isthmus.

Knox started going to rehearsals to watch DeMain and the former director of orchestras at UW-Madison, James Smith, whenever he could. Eventually, Knox became Smith’s graduate student, earning his doctorate of musical arts — and getting more practice. That led to jobs directing University Opera, summer youth music clinics, minor concerts for the MSO, and more. Madison Opera hired him to conduct “Little Women.”

“Once you’re on the wall, you can start climbing,” said Knox. “I don’t think there’s anything special about me. I’m just persistent.”

But Smith calls Knox “pretty electric.”

“He progressed rapidly because he’s an excellent musician and has a very fast mind, and can calculate situations very quickly and come up with a solution,” said Smith, a fellow clarinetist-turned-conductor who headed WYSO for 32 years before retiring from that and his university job in 2017. “He’s worked very hard and he’s earned everything he’s achieved.”

“He’s really smart,” DeMain agreed. “He has a wonderful personality and he’s a perfectionist, but he never demeans anybody. He just works to get it right in the most pleasant way.”

Challenging his young players

At the MSO, Knox serves as another pair of ears for DeMain, giving feedback at rehearsal and stepping in when necessary. At WYSO, he will help shape the musical training of some 500 students from around the region who travel to Madison for weekly rehearsals.

Knox’s experience in an orchestra himself — plus the avid endorsements of people who’d worked with him locally and a stellar audition — won him the post, said WYSO board president Mike George.

“He’s a great orchestra builder,” said Mindy Taranto, co-founder of the Middleton Community Orchestra, which Knox frequently conducts. “He pushes everyone to listen and to play well together.”

Knox recently took his clarinet out of the closet to perform a small house concert with his wife as a fundraiser for WYSO. Still, he’s firmly planted in the conducting world.

“It’s an endlessly fascinating job,” he said. “Very, very engaging, never boring. Always hard. But incredibly fulfilling.”

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